Jan 08 2012

Free inquiry v commitment to equality

Ron Lindsay wrote a post about freedom of expression and critical inquiry a couple of days ago, prompted mostly by the controversy over Ben Radford’s post (this is getting too meta already – so often the case) about pink toys and sexism.

Ron said:

The cornerstone of our mission is freedom of expression and critical inquiry. We see freedom of expression and critical inquiry as indispensable tools for arriving at an accurate understanding of just about any issue of importance, including, but not limited to, the truth of religious or fringe science claims.


There is a trope out there (this is nothing to do with Ron Lindsay) that goes something like: the “radical feminism” of a subset of atheists is a disgrace in people who claim to value critical inquiry and free thinking.

I think that’s wrong but not obviously wrong – or to put it another way, there’s some truth in that but it can’t and shouldn’t be helped. (Well, I don’t think there’s some truth in the claim that it’s “a disgrace,” but the claim isn’t always made in those terms. I think there’s some truth in the claim that there’s a tension or a difficulty.)

The trouble is, there are two categories in play here: the epistemic and the political. The two are inherently in at least potential conflict…and I don’t think that can be helped; I think all we can do is be aware of the tension, be honest about it, point it out if others seem to be missing it, and the like. I don’t think we can do away with it.

Free inquiry is one kind of thing, and commitment to equality is another.

We keep finding ourselves in slow motion train wrecks because of this fact. Greta posts something uncontroversial about a new podcast by Rebecca Watson on Facebook and promptly gets a slew of hostile comments; she posts about the absurdity of that, and promptly gets more hostile comments. Specifically, she gets comments from a guy who says he is just “disagreeing” with her…

And that’s where the wheels come off. Maybe he is. But given all the background noise, that claim can be hard to believe at this point – and that’s a distortion. It’s a kind of bias. But that doesn’t make it false! Weird, isn’t it. Both can be true: we (we feminist atheists) are acting like trigger-happy paranoiacs, and the people who claim to be just “disagreeing” are actually expressing hostility to the idea that women should be treated as equals. It could be true that we’re right to act like trigger-happy paranoiacs, because what we think about the people who are “disagreeing” with us in a certain way is accurate, yet at the same time there we are acting like trigger-happy paranoiacs, which can’t be good for our critical thinking skills.

But it can’t be helped. It can be, I think, compensated for, but it can’t be just ended. That’s because that’s how it is with discussions that have a bearing on equality. They tend to mix the empirical and the political. Think the Bell Curve. Think Larry Summers. Think James Watson.

But the problem with this of course is that it creates taboos, and in free inquiry one doesn’t want taboos, to put it mildly. In political commitments, however, one does (in a sense).

These two things don’t go together well.

To be continued.


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  1. 1
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    the “radical feminism” of a subset of atheists is a disgrace in people who claim to value critical inquiry and free thinking.

    If that’s supposed to be a link, it’s borked

    And if believing that women are equal human beings is dogmatic, then I’ll subscribe to that happily

  2. 2

    I find this post ringing truer than expected (imagine my surprise, being a staunch advocate of equality) after having to sit my son down last night and explain what ‘Fair’ really meant.

    You never get better insights into yourself than when you try to explain things to a 9 year old.

  3. 3

    I can fathom disagreeing with self-described feminists; I probably disagree with them descriptively 50% of the time and proscriptively 75% of the. I can fathom feeling wronged if accused of being sexist or paternalistic, or when someone I admire is so accused. I can fathom refusing to do what some self-described feminists think I should do — making a particular type of joke, for instance, and suffering the social consequences.

    What I can’t fathom is why some people seem to come completely unhinged when faced with self-described feminist criticism, in ways they don’t about any other expression with which they disagree. It’s mystifying.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Giliell – exactly…except that with me “happily” is tempered by awareness of the tension. “Adamantly” might be more like it – and that’s where the tension is. Can’t be helped, but it’s better to be aware of it.

  5. 5

    Here’s the thing…

    In order for us to think rationally, we have to have something we’re trying to think rationally about. Logic is completely pointless without some kind of goal, inquiry or value to which it is applied.

    We HAVE to assume certain values in order to actually be bothering to do anything with our free thinking and critical inquiry.


    “Uncomfortable truths are better than cozy falsehoods”

    “Murder is wrong”

    “A free society is better than a perfectly orderly society”

    “Human rights are important”


    “Women, and other genders, are of equal validity and value as men, and deserve equal rights”

    Clinging to these is NOT a dogma in AT ALL the same sense that clinging to a religious truth claim about the nature of the world or moral law is (the earth was made in 7 days, god hates fags, blah blah blah).

    It’s not a fair analogy to make. It’s simply a base value assumption.

    And what REALLY angers me is that when challenging the supposed “dogma” of feminism, the people you’re referencing NEVER actually make any claims that the only “dogmatically” held belief about feminism, the value assumption about the equal validity of genders, is at all wrong. They’re too timid. Instead they attack belief ITSELF as though that’s a problem.

    And yet ALL THE WHILE they do not criticize other beliefs held as givens… that murder is wrong, that liberty is more important than absolute social stability, that truth is better than comfy lies, that evolution is indeed an accurate theory for the origin of species, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, etc. Each one of those beliefs is no more nor less a “dogma” than the basic central tenet of feminism that genders are of equal value. Various FORMS of feminist thought that extend from that are up for debate (and indeed ARE debated within feminism), and may or may not be rational conclusions based on the evidence, but all that “feminism”, as a monolithic structure, really is is that ONE basic principle of equality that these anti-feminist “Troo Free Thinkers” are too timid to actually challenge.

    And meanwhile they just as “dogmatically” cling to the belief that concepts like male privilege, emergent sexism, invisible bias, etc. are “just sociological drivel” and “relativistic pomo bullshit” without any backing or substance. Despite the tremendous amount of backing and substance we routinely provide. It’s absurdly hypocritical. Just this basic de facto assumption that their position is the “right” one and therefore that the only reason we disagree is “feminist dogma” while claiming that WE simply “stifle any disagreement or dissent and accuse [them] of thought crime and ban [them] just for disagreeing over the ‘tiniest’ thing blah blah blah”

    And “radical feminism” is ABSOLUTELY NOT BY ANY MEANS what you see presented by Rebecca Watson, Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, Stephanie Zvan, etc. If ANY specific branch were primarily represented here, it would just be a general third-wave sensibility.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    “We HAVE to assume certain values in order to actually be bothering to do anything with our free thinking and critical inquiry.”

    Quite. That will be in the Continued part. :- )

    It’s Hume, and Damasio, and Churchland. We have to be motivated by something. We can’t help having some basic commitments, and we’d be useless without them.

    My basic point is that that fact is not identical to free inquiry and we can avoid some of these tangled train wrecks if we realize that – all of us, especially the people who keep shouting at us “You’re being all dogmatic and that’s not freethought arrrrrrrrghblrghxxx!!”

  7. 7

    These two things don’t go together well.

    It’s (regardless of what some are going to say) priorities. Free thought and critical inquiry are something treasured by many skeptics. They are, of course, right to do so. But why I think that is different from why other skeptics might think that.

    For me it comes down to being able to improve humanity. Critically evaluating new information, examining biases, creating a podium where underrepresented ideas can be represented is all to make it possible for someone else to have a slightly less crappy existence. That sets the tone for every discussion I will ever engage in.

    If we’re just being contrarian (for example, the “Yes…but” discussion at Greta Christina’s) I do not see the point. Make whatever argument you like but if it’s only virtue is it being technically true yeah don’t expect friendliness or acceptance. You’re a distraction and I dislike distractions.

  8. 8

    Perhaps an article for Free Inquiry magazine?

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    Well I’m thinking this will be my talk (or panel contribution or whatever I’m doing) at the CFI Secularism conference.

  10. 10
    Ken Pidcock

    But it can’t be helped. It can be, I think, compensated for, but it can’t be just ended. That’s because that’s how it is with discussions that have a bearing on equality. They tend to mix the empirical and the political.

    Indeed. The Larry Summers story provides a good case study. Summers’s remarks were intentionally provocative but within the realm of civil discourse and, as he emphasized, open to empirical analysis. It is straightforward to rise to his defense inasmuch as he never said what common wisdom holds him to have said, that men are, as a class, better qualified to pursue careers in physics and mathematics. However, he offered his remarks to an audience well aware of the discriminatory barriers faced by women qualified to pursue such careers, and to suggest that such discrimination is tertiary to lifestyle choice and differences in variability was bound to provoke justified outrage. It’s something of the commitment that we should remain focused on what we can affect.

  11. 11

    The one in Orlando or the Women in Secularism conference?

  12. 12

    Your panel at WiS is the intersection of feminism and atheism.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson


    Perhaps I’ll say the opposite of whatever I say in Orlando, for WiS! :- )

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Ken – indeed back. I was annoyed by the way Summers was misparaphrased at the time, but reading Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender changed my view of what he said a little, in the direction you indicate.

  15. 15

    Another issue is hyperbole, which is legitimate in political discourse, but which sometimes interacts poorly with the skeptical community. I know that I personally almost sort of glitch out when I read something that isn’t strictly true, and I KNOW that the person who wrote it knows it isn’t strictly true, but everyone is pretending that its true. I find it hard to proceed with the conversation until the discrepancy is resolved, and I often get quite angry, because it feels like someone is lying to me, and then insulting me for questioning the lie.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes that’s a point. The same is true of academic/philosophical discourse v bloggy/informal/demotic discourse. I’m often very glad that I don’t have to use the carefully neutral character-free language of (most) academic discourse, but at the same time I try not to be too anarchic. But I know I’m much more careful when writing for publication, so that tells you something.

  17. 17

    One thing that often bothers me, though, is when people hold informal discourse, such as blogging, up to the standards of academic, scientific writing in terms of tone and neutrality of language. Such as chastising someone for writing a piece on male privilege because privilege isn’t a suitably scientifically rigorous concept, and the examples used are all anecdotal. IT’S A BLOG POST. The role of blogs is very different than that of scientific journals… blogs are an interdisciplinary, popular medium meant to disseminate concepts of much more specialized work out into the world. It by nature needs to speak at least somewhat in an informal, enjoyable, anecdotal tone. So… I think criticizing people within the skeptics movement who are, perhaps like me, the BA liberal arts majours of the movement, for not being scientists and writing scientific papers when we ARE offering is what we CAN do well (enjoyable, informal pieces that distill complicated, academic concepts into bite-sized, understandable, relatable posts) is… I don’t know… kind of shooting ourselves in the foot.

  18. 18
    Josh Slocum

    What’s most irritating about this—and about Ron’s response—is that it’s not about a conflict between commitment to equality and a commitment to skeptical inquiry! Characterizing it this way, I’m sorry to say Ophelia, gives too much credit to a crap argument. This is about Ben Radford utterly failing to use the most basic skeptical tools—relying on credible research, understanding it properly, and not making obviously false and stupid statements like calling doll’s skin pink, not doubling down when mistakes are pointed out—in approaching this.

    If anyone else had approached approached Bigfoot (or whatever) in the manner Radford did, he’d rightly excoriate them and point out how the person had no idea how to use basic critical thinking skills.

    As Natalie and others have said, Ron is either completely blind to this or he’s refusing to cop to it publicly. It’s not that fucking hard to see, and CFI shouldn’t be let off the hook for closing ranks around utterly stupid behavior that runs contrary to its mission.

    I’m pissed, actually, that we’re allowing Ron to have this conversation. It’s disingenuous nonsense. Radford was clearly so motivated to need to “debunk” an obvious example of gender-role enforcement in marketing that he lost his marbles. It’s a perfect example of demanding extraordinary evidence at a ridiculously high bar for this issue only — that sexism is endemic.

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    Josh – hmm – yes, but I wasn’t really talking about Ron’s post as a whole or in particular. I was using that one line as a jumping-off point. I was really talking more about Stephanie’s post and the comments on it, and the argy-bargy that prompted it. Not Ben R so much as Ryan G L, and partly DJ.

  20. 20
    Josh Slocum

    Ah, yeah, I was riding my own hobby horse a little Ophelia, you’re right. But it still needed to be said, and CFI should be doing a lot more talking about this issue than they are.

    As for DJ and Ryan Long – it’s yet more of the same thing. With a huge side helping of DJ pretending not to understand why people were upset, then demolishing a huge straw argument and flouncing. Not impressive.

  21. 21
    Ophelia Benson

    Natalie – I agree! That’s why I rejoice that I don’t have to write academicese.

    On the other hand, sometimes we do want to do posts that attempt to make a serious argument, so we don’t want to treat blog posts as always or necessarily non-rigorous, doncha think?

  22. 22

    Well, following on what both Josh and Natalie said, I think part of the problem here is that people with privilege are often in denial that their privilege exists, and raise the bar for evidence of privilege accordingly. It’s not uncommon to see someone demand scientific evidence for the existence of sexism or patriarchy itself, which in my mind is the wrong approach, because the evidence is everywhere, and the existence of sexism should be the null hypothesis, given what we know about human culture.

    I really think we need a resource of scientific articles about sexism, racism, and other institutional bigotries so that people who are doing sexism-denial or privilege denial can simply be sent there rather than allowed to derail thread after thread with endless recitations of statistics about poverty, academic achievement, structural barriers to professional advancement, and so on.

  23. 23

    I really think we need a resource of scientific articles about sexism, racism, and other institutional bigotries so that people who are doing sexism-denial or privilege denial can simply be sent there rather than allowed to derail thread after thread with endless recitations of statistics about poverty, academic achievement, structural barriers to professional advancement, and so on.


    I’m tempted to fantasy-nominate mouthyb for curator of same, because she’s excellent with the resources, except that she kinda has a life already. Or Stephanie Zvan, because about ten of those resources are blog post she’s written. There’s a Pharynguwiki – should there be an FTBwiki for this sort of thing? (My hoard of references runs to 100MB now if anyone wants it.)

  24. 24

    Jadehawk also has a shit-ton of the stuff and does info dumps all the time. I have a few things bookmarked as well. It’s just a question of collecting and organizing it.

  25. 25

    I’m starting a blog soon, so maybe I’ll take it on. But it will be at least a couple of months before I have it all up and running.

  26. 26
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Ah, Josh beat me to it.

    I see no conflict at all. And actually, Cordelia Fine makes this argument very well. It’s not about any conflict between free inquiry and political commitment, but about a moral commitment (which Lindsay claims) to critical inquiry and claimsmaking. As she says:

    Summers’ remarks deserved to draw fire. This is not because the ideas were politically impermissible: indeed, the notion that women are inherently less likely to be exceptional because they show less variability in psychological traits was presented in a best-selling book by Steven Pinker; Summers’s suggestion that males are biologically predisposed to be more interested in pursuing a scientific career forms part of an actively investigated hypothesis about sex differences. Rather, his comments merited indignation because scientifically they were not well-considered, sometimes nothing short of offensively so.

    …Douglas* argues that social values can safely play an indirect role in scientific reasoning, by “shifting the level of what counts as sufficient warrant for an empirical claim.” So, we might demand a higher standard of evidence for the claim that a pill will keep a fatal disease at bay than for the claim it will make our hair glossy. The higher the social costs of potential error, the better the standard of evidence we require.

    …Considering a legitimate, indirect role for political values in the debate might help move it along – and encourage those who think they are keeping the science separate from politics to think again. Do Summers’ defenders find unusually insightful his observation that his twin daughters referred to their toy trucks as Daddy and Baby, and think that it really does tell us “something that [we] probably have to recognize” about women’s intrinsic scientific interests? Or are their political values such that even anecdotes have sufficient warrant in this particular debate?

    What about claims of sex differences in the brain, sometimes speculatively linked to aptitude in science and maths? Small sample sizes, noisy data, publication bias, and teething problems with statistical analysis techniques leave this literature littered with spurious findings of sex differences. So where does the disagreement lie between the neuroscientist or commentator who reports a sex difference in the brain, and the critic of that empirical claim? Does the former have a far more optimistic view of the study’s reliability? Or is she less concerned about the social fall-out should her claim about the difference between the male and the female brain turn out to be wrong? [my emphasis]

    This means being very careful about approaching alleged evidence that suits your biases or promotes existing inequalities and making claims on that basis. Making claims that can have serious harmful effects on people is morally weighty, and those made by Radford – and many made by those citing ridiculous bits of evo psych nonsense – are completely irresponsible in this light. You can’t simply deny the moral responsibility inherent in scientific claimsmaking by invoking free expression, especially when you otherwise claim a commitment to critical inquiry.

    The argument about jokes is somewhat related but not entirely parallel. It’s related in that an existing social gradient means that jokes about some groups are going to have certain serious negative effects, and it’s morally irresponsible to make them in that circumstance, as Herzog points out.

    *I read the Douglas book the other day, by the way. It’s decent.

  27. 27
    PZ Myers

    Well, I could see your point about the two conflicting values if this wasn’t a case where Radford screwed the pooch on a third axis: that was some mighty poor skepticism, backed up by some very bad mangled evidence and ad hoc rationalizing. I think CFI ought to have a little more commitment to quality arguments than was exhibited in that godawful stupid post by Radford.

  28. 28

    Ophelia, @21-

    Yep! I agree with you about that as well. Sometimes we blog in a TOTALLY informal way. Like ripping the pilot of “Work It” to shreds. And sometimes we’re discussing a serious issue, like this particular post we’re currently commenting upon. And we adjust the overall tone of the writing accordingly. But even in the most serious of serious posts, a blog post is -never- an academic or scientific journal, we’re still writers and our primary responsibility is to communicate our points to our readers in an enjoyable and clear way (I mean “enjoyable” in a very broad sense… not necessarily meaning “fun”). So I just feel that attacking bloggers just for being bloggers instead of scientists… or to act like the ONLY things we’re ever allowed to discuss, and the ONLY way we’re ever allowed to discuss it, is up to the standards of hard, academic science is to dispense with a HIGHLY valuable branch of the movement. Especially since skepticism is by nature an interdisciplinary movement, and no one can be an expert on everything, we need interdisciplinary non-specialized mediators to help articulate the larger images, patterns, goals, values… and sometimes that will necessarily stepping away from “hard” skepticism and into the realm of aesthetics, writing, ethics, sociology and values.

  29. 29

    Oh… and on the subject of curated statistics and data on privilege and social inequities…

    that’s one of the things I’m trying to construct over at Queereka for our resources page. Links to things like the National Transgender Discrimination Survey and stuff. I’m thinking… maybe it would be cool to try to generally encourage blogs that concern social issues (sex, gender, race, LGBT, atheism, etc) to set up little static link pages like that, when possible? Just having these things constantly on hand would make the comment threads 1000x less annoying. Which is definitely part of why I want to have it at Queereka, other than it just being one of the things that I think would be of value for an LGBT/skepticism site to provide (since we’d double-check to make sure all the data is methodologically sound).

    (no, this is not a case of shameless self-promotion, just using my own glorious, incredible, amazing self as an example to illustrate a potentially helpful project)

  30. 30

    no, this is not a case of shameless self-promotion

    Understood–but if we have located sound studies, would you like links via email?

  31. 31

    Josh Slocum and Salty Current: quite so. I think the tension either is alleviated or goes away entirely (haven’t decided which yet!) once you realize that skeptical discussion simply cannot happen if marginalized groups are shut out of it.

  32. 32

    Pteryxx: Aww, I’m totally honored. I could contribute on occasion to some sort of wiki or blog, and would consider it a privilege. I can see from the arguments that continue to have to be made (over and over) about behavioral science that it might save time.

    It wouldn’t be frequently, however. I’m up to 16 credit hours this semester, but down to two jobs.

  33. 33


    That would be pretty awesome, actually. There’s a contact form at the site.

  34. 34
    Ophelia Benson

    Anyway, Natalie, self-promotion is fine. It’s information sharing!

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